Book Review: ‘Bitter Greens’ by Kate Forsyth

bitter greens(**** 1/2 of five)

I have nothing but good things to say about this book, except for some shaky parts towards the end. It mixed a bevy of my favorite things together, boiled them in a cauldron and somehow made it work better than I could have imagined. This is a remarkable work.

At the end of the seventeenth century Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force is exiled from the court of King Louis XIV due to some scandalous writings, and sent to the convent at Gercy-en-Brie. Despondent over her circumstances, Charlotte-Rose finds solace only in a story told to her by Soeur Seraphina; the tale of a young girl taken from her parents in exchange for a handful of bitter greens. Locked in a tower Margherita (now called Petrosinella, or ‘Little Parsley’ in Italian) she has the hair of eight other captive girls sewn into her own locks. Her captor, the beautiful courtesan and witch, Selena Leonelli, baths in her blood every full moon. But what do these three woman, their collective stories spanning three centuries, have in common? A lack of choice in what happens to them and their bodies. A courtier, a captive, and a courtesan; all prisoners of some kind.

Three fantastic leading ladies form a story that’s part fairy tale and part historical fiction. Our historical figure, Charlotte-Rose, I confess, I knew nothing about. In fact, she doesn’t seem a lady that is particularly easy to get to know. Her wikipedia page is rudimentary and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of her writings, that isn’t in French, to be found. None the less, it is clear that Ms. Forsyth has done her research. Charlotte-Rose is richly realized, as is the world she lived in; teetering between wealth and ruin. People find courtiers to be glamorous, but here we are shown just how perilous court can be.

Margherita we grow up with. She is a girl from a fairy tale. Rapunzel. Named Persinette in de la Force’s version of the tale and later renamed by the Brothers Grimm. [An aside, it seems that a lot of people don’t know that rapunzel is a type of green. It is, she was named after the greens that were stolen from the witch.] She is innocent, she is victimized, she is childlike as all versions of Rapunzel tend to be. However, is is not boring. Margherita’s suffering is very well done here. The reader feels, at once, very sorry for her and impressed by her ingenuity.

Selena is… awesome. Like all the greatest villains, she’s not all bad. Her actions could suggest otherwise, but Selena has suffered as all do in this tale. She was orphaned young, brought up by a witch and taught the trades, she has been forced into prostitution and fears her waning beauty, as it was part of her mother’s undoing and eventual death. Forsyth makes an admirable choice to include Selena’s story into this book. The fact that no one is pure evil without a reason and that no one is above redemption. It was, perhaps, my favorite segment.

The only negative I have about this book was the end. It was fine, but didn’t seem to follow the exquisite quality of the rest of the book. Margherita’s story is that of Rapunzel and we all know how that ends. However, her sudden use of magic, and her lover’s tumble into the blinding thorns below seemed false in this context. The rest of the story used magic but in the sort of way that can almost be believed. Spells that are cast through diligence and work, not the flick of a wrist. Margherita’s giving birth to twins of a mountain road also seemed a little… easy. Perhaps these are petty complaints but I LOVED everything before the finale and I was a little disappointed. Finally, the revelation at the end of the story seemed so obvious to me that it would have been nice if it hadn’t been spelled out. It didn’t change the story at all if the reader didn’t understand and having it told explicitly lost some of it’s appeal for me.

But my disappointment at the end did not translate into disappointment in the book. I closed the cover feeling satisfied and exhilarated at the finely woven story I’d just read. I would recommend this to anyone, particularly those who enjoy fairy tales, historical fiction, or the supernatural.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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